Reykjavik – Fire and Ice

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN GAFENCU MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 2015

Northern Lights

One of the biggest questions when it comes to visiting Reykjavik is not so much whether to go as just when to go. This consideration becomes particularly pertinent when your tour bus slides off the icy road and threatens to turn turtle amid the frozen wastes. Enduring such an experience – and arriving back at base four-and-a-half hours later than scheduled – would surely be enough to deter many a casual tourist. That would be a shame. In truth, Reykjavik – and Iceland in general – has to be among the hottest destinations around. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Pitched halfway between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean, Iceland is definitely in the “small but beautiful” category. Its population of less than 350,000 inhabits a 40,000-square mile island, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The fact that two-thirds of the population lives in the South West – in sledging distance of the capital, suggests that you might well be wise to focus your visit on Reykjavik.

Tourism is on the up in Iceland. This is just as well. Their economy, of course, tanked spectacularly in 2008. Thankfully for the country’s cash-strapped citizenry, as a vacation destination, Reykjavik offers a sensational alternative to just about any other city in the world.

The list of natural “must-see” highlights is, indeed, breathtaking – the Northern Lights, the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle (comprising Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir and Stokkur geysers and the Gullfoss waterfall). Each location provides ample opportunity to practice your photography skills and all are within a two-hour drive of Reykjavik. As are a host of other adrenalin-pumping pursuits – glacier hiking, skiing, horse-riding, 4-wheel terrain driving and volcano hopping (with or without a helicopter).

Back to that tricky what-time-of-year-to-go question, though, and one of the conundrums here is that, in the dark winter months, “must-see” quite often means “can’t see.” Let’s take the Northern Lights, allegedly “viewable” between October and April. You need three ingredients to catch God’s larva lamp at its molten best – a clear sky, no light pollution and, of course, an actual appearance from the Aurora Borealis.

Unsurprisingly, the local tour operators are highly adept at driving coachloads of tourists around the peninsula every night in pursuit of the ultimate lightshow. Ask them one simple question – “Will we definitely get to see the Lights?’ – and you’ll get a shrug that somehow frees them from any liability under the Icelandic Trade Description Act.

It’s not actually all that helpful that tour operators offer a free ticket for the following night if you don’t get to see the Northern Lights. One poor family went out for four nights on the run, but the Northern Lights remained stubbornly unilluminating. On the night we ventured out, we saw nothing but a faint gleam beyond a mountain range, as though someone, far away, had left a fridge door slightly ajar. We were duly informed, though, that we had “legally” seen the lights, removing our any claim to a subsequent free return gig.

The golden rule, then, is that, unless you’re absolutely set on seeing the Northern Lights, let nature take its course and don’t book a tour into the countryside until the actual evening of your trip. And only then when you know the odds are stacked firmly in your favour.

Even then, hold your breath. A night freezing your woolly socks off in the middle of nowhere is no match for a night out in Reykjavik, so play it cool, in every respect. Of course, should you get lucky, you’ll see one of nature’s true wonders. Allegedly, at least.

This air of unpredictability when it comes to seeing Iceland’s natural glories at their best extended to our organised tour of the Golden Circle – an essential tick box on every Reykjavik itinerary. On a day when the sun rose at 10.30am and set at 3.30pm, it was a little surprising to be advised to take the “quick” tour, leaving Reykjavik at 1pm and returning at 7pm. How, then, were we going to see everything?

That question became even more pressing when it became more than apparent that the weather conditions were clearly not in our favour – relentless freezing rain and a gale lashed the coach as we wended national parkwards. It was hard not to feel sorry for the hapless tour guide facing the challenge of keeping the passengers both informed and entertained. Everybody – including her – knew the trip should have been cancelled. Once we’d set off, though, there was no turning back.

Of course, we didn’t see the waterfall (too windy and too dark) or the geysers (too dark and too icy). Instead, we were dragged into gift shops and cafeterias before being given the unexpected extra of pondering our imminent mortality as we hung suspended over a ditch in a charabanc. Icelanders obviously don’t like giving refunds. At least this guide didn’t try to argue we had “legally” seen the said sights. It would have taken a plucky tourist, indeed, to avail himself of the “free” ticket for the same tour the following day.

This does beg the question of whether it’s really wise to rely on an organised trip. Why not just hire a car and head off yourself? Unfortunately, we’re now back to that “when to go” question. The white night, midnight sun days of summer present little problem to the casual driver who’s hired a Ford Ka from Keflavik Airport, but sticking a set of winter tyres on said vehicle doesn’t convert it into a snow plough for the winter months.

Icelanders are all too wary of gung-ho drivers attempting to negotiate snow and ice covered roads. Not only do they tend to need rescuing, they also block the roads for better-equipped drivers and vehicles. Unless your day job is a courier in a ski resort the best thing to ask yourself is: “Do I really need to make this journey by car?”

Ironically, the one trip where a car would be really useful compared to a coach (forget taxis – way too expensive) is for the mandatory trip to the Blue Lagoon. This is largely because the best time to visit this unique geothermal spa is either on the way from the airport to Reykjavik, or on your way back for your outward flight. The Lagoon is 15 minutes from the airport, eating into a quarter of the travel time to the capital.

Its waters are rich in minerals, such as silica and sulphur, while its 38 degrees Centigrade temperature more than invites you to linger and luxuriate – especially on the days when there’s a blizzard whistling around your ears. It’s highly likely that the Blue Lagoon will prove the best bath time you’ve ever had.

What, then, of Reykjavik itself? Well, it’s undoubtedly a party city. Icelanders will be the first to tell you that they like a drink. Whether it’s their Viking heritage or the long dark winter nights, their drinking is what can only be called goal-orientated – they imbibe as much as possible to get smashed as quickly as possible.

There is a school of thought that believes this is due to something of an oversight when they repealed Prohibition back in 1933 after an 18-year period. Beer, it transpires, remained on the “excluded” list until 1989, so they all drank spirits instead. A lot of spirits. One local magazine even offers an app listing every happy hour in Reykjavik – they call it “the guide that f***s you up.” What it lacks in catchiness, it makes up for in accuracy.

That’s another thing about the Icelanders – their quirky, laid back sense of humour. You’re never far from a twinkle in a local’s eye when you’re in Reykjavik. Quite possibly, joshing the tourists is how they cope with the variable daylight hours or, maybe, their sense of humour is down to their diet. There’s no doubt that the menus in Iceland give the distinct impression that, somewhere, a stand-up comedian is making the dishes up – smoked puffin breast, putrefied shark, dolphin carpaccio, not to mention the ever-popular whale are all on the “must-try” list when eating out. It’s omega oil heaven.

Quite simply, you’ll not eat anywhere else in the world like you’ll eat in Reykjavik. It is, without a doubt, the most unexportable cuisine on the planet.

Iceland’s current major claim to culinary fame, though, will surprise many, especially the Americans. They now reckon they do the best hotdog in the world. The most popular place to test out this theory at is a small red and white caravan – Bajarins Beztu Pylsur – that’s rammed all day with Icelanders keen to get their hands on their signature dogs. They’ve even had Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen and the lead singer from Metallica dropping in to get one to go.

The secret, they say, is down to the lamb – there are, after all, more sheep than people in Iceland – the sauces and the onion relish, part raw and part fried. At around HK$25 a dog, they’re cheap – and that’s not something you’ll find yourself saying often while holidaying in Reykjavik.

If street food isn’t your style, however, then there are a number of upmarket restaurants that will leave you totally convinced that you’re eating authentic Icelandic fare. You’ll inevitably enjoy Facebooking food pics to your friends, especially Fiskfelagid’s “funky” Rod Grod dessert – a combination of milk ice cream, liquorice and meringue with beetroot salad. Who could ever have too many?

As the choice of hotels isn’t vast by the standards of most cities, the smart option here is to hire an apartment for the duration of your stay. Definitely stay in the city centre, as you don’t want to miss a thing – especially the drunken carousing that will inevitably take place immediately below your window until 4am in the morning.

Reykjavik, it must be said, is a brilliant city for strolling around. As well as the old harbour, the extensive shopping in Laugardalur and the millions of restaurants, there are numerous historical landmarks to visit and photostop. The new Harpa Concert and Conference Hall adds to a rich Icelandic cultural scene, while the historic Hofdi House (built in 1909) hosted the 1986 summit meeting between presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. Make sure you also take in the the Solfar Sun Voyager sculpture, looking out to the Atlantic Ocean, or the Imagine Peace Tower – a powerful pillar of light – conceived by Yoko Ono (it’s lit nightly from 9 October to 8 December).

Overall, it’s not hard to see that Reykjavik’s and Iceland’s street cred and international reputation are clearly on the up. While its mythical and historical image still makes this Land of Ice and Fire the destination of choice for Game of Thrones location shoots, a new Sky TV star-studded drama, Fortitude, is set to further extend Scandi-noir cool to this corner of the Arctic Circle.

But back to the question of just when to go… Well, despite the vagaries of the sightseeing business, a wintery Iceland is what most of us want to experience. Going in summer would be fine, but it’d be a bit like visiting a snow-free Santa’s grotto. The trick is to think like an Icelander. Chill out, and remain laidback – if it’s not going to happen today, it might well happen tomorrow. Probably. Whatever you do, don’t put your visit to Reykjavik on ice for too long.